Telling the Wrong Story in Gujarat

Too Much Secularism is a Dangerous Thing

By Dipankar Gupta

Is the Congress afraid of winning in Gujarat?

Nothing else explains why it lets Narendra Modi tom-tom development when it should have been the Congress banging the drums. The economic achievements of governments before Modi’s read like an award citation, but too much secularism has since led the Congress astray. Instead of showcasing its past performance to regain Gujarat, it is obsessed with nailing Modi as a communalist-in-chief. Naturally, it is not getting anywhere fast.

Look also at the good memories the Congress is erasing away.

In 1991, a full ten years before Modi arrived, as many as 17,940 out of 18,028 villages were already electrified. The Ukai plant, which uses washed coal to generate power, was also pre-Modi as was the asphalting of 87.5% of Gujarat roads. 1980-81, Gujarat’s share in manufacturing at the national level was only 16.29%, but by 2000-1 it rose to an impressive 28.71%. Not surprising then, that between 1994-2001, well before Modi, Gujarat’s State Domestic Product grew at 10%-13%; way higher than the All-India average.

Since 1980, Gujarat has been India’s poster state. Modi had nothing to do with the world’s largest ship breaking yard coming up in Bhavnagar, nor with the setting up of the Ambani refinery in Jamnagar. Well before Modi, Gujarat accounted for 45% of India’s petroleum products, roughly 18% of the country’s cargo handling, 23% of our total requirement for crude oil and 30% of our natural gas needs from offshore basins.

In addition, Gujarat, since the 1990s, produces as much as 78% of the country’s salt, 98% of soda ash and 26% of India’s pharmaceutical products. Because of Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel’s intervention in 1993 that port traffic in this state jumped from a mere 3.18 million tonnes in 1981 to 86.17 million tonnes in 2001. In the same period, Gujarat’s share of the national port traffic increased from 45.36% to above 76% and has stayed there ever since. Modi’s decade has not made that percentage grow.

During the eventful 1990s, Gujarat successfully augmented 35% of its power generation capacity. It also closed down five major loss-making public sector units, initiating instead a variety of public-private partnerships. In fact, an early short-lived BJP government under Keshubhai Patel in 1995-6 did some good work too. In particular, he was instrumental in setting up Gujarat’s Industrial Development Board, but Modi has blanked him out from public memory as well.

If Gujarat’s agriculture is prospering today it is because the state has begun to receive Sardar Sarovar waters from 2002. Once again, Modi had little to do with the inauguration of this Project, but he was at the right place and at the right time to take the credit for it. If there was ever a person who reaped what somebody else had sown, then that is Modi.

Gujarat also is not alone in posting agricultural growth rates above the national average; even backward Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh handsomely beat the all India figure. Finally, it is not as if Gujarat is overall the richest state either; Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra and Kerala are all much better off, primarily because they have lower rural poverty rates.

At the same time, to round off this number, it must be acknowledged Gujarat was never poor. True, it was a lowly eighth in terms of prosperity in 1960, but it has been at number three since 1985 and continues to hold that spot. Modi may not have self-started Gujarat’s development, but he certainly kept the engine running.

In line with this, Modi should be credited for taking a few initiatives on his own. For example, while Gujarat’s villages were all lit, it is also a fact that the State’s electricity board was bankrupt in 2002. Loans were arranged to overcome this shortfall and power thefts too were curtailed by police monitoring. Gujarat also did well in making Central Government’s “Sarva Shiksha Abhiayan” work, especially in connection with the girl child. Yet, the percentage fall in Gujarat’s IMR and poverty rates are well below the national average.

It is not as if Gujarat’s pre-2001 achievements are hard to dredge out of history. But by keeping silent about its successful past, the Congress has added body to Modi’s presence. This enables him to keep his people in line by telling them he is about to get angry, but that should not disorient the opposition. Now that Gujarat’s economy is all grown up and good looking, the Congress should admit its responsibility and submit to a paternity test. What is there to hide?

Hefty anti-saffron helpings, on their own, will not do. With a stomach full of that stuff, the Congress can hardly catch up with Modi.  In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru taught us that secularism does not win elections, development does. Why then is the Congress doing its best to come second best by gagging the record of non-BJP governments through much of the 1990s? In politics, as in sports, winning is not everything, it is the only thing.

Most recently, Mukesh Ambani praised Narendra Modi for putting Gujarat on the world map. He seems to have forgotten that his father, and Reliance, prospered in Gujarat well before Modi properly entered politics. On the other hand, there is much wisdom in the old Sicilian proverb that we keep our friends close, but our enemies even closer.

In which case, is Mukesh close or closer to Modi?

This op-ed appeared in the Times of India on October 7, 2011 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.


  • Mohinder
    Posted at 14:24h, 17 October Reply

    Dipankar is conveniently forgetting the rabid communalism, exploitation of the communal populism (without doing any thing meaningful for the minorities) through the minority elites, practiced by the Indian state for first fifty years under Congress rule. Not that the rest of South Asia was any more secular, on the contrary the minorities were being killed, forced to flee, and being coerced in the rest of South Asia during those fifty years.

    While arguing that two other states- Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh- have equally high growth rates, Dipankar forgot that those two states are also non-Congress (unfortunately, BJP states, Dipankar might not see it through his leftist JNU lens) states.

    Indian, and South Asia desperately needs to redefine the political debate in terms of development rather than religion but it is obviously not in the interest of jaded leftists whose economic policies have brought nothing but poverty, elites of these poor societies who stand to lose their share of state power, and the fundamentalists who lose their raison detre. Development is a powerful antidote for communalism – hard to make separate roads, power lines, ports, businesses, for different religions.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:17h, 17 October Reply

    I think neither the Congress nor Modi or anybody should be taking credit for development. In fact they all should be taking blame for impeding development. If anybody should take credit for development then it is the enterprise of Indian people who have negotiated untold restrictions and discouragement in the name of socialism.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:17h, 17 October Reply

    I am not sure if port tonnage, soda ash production are the signs of economic progress that an average middle class citizen relates to. They tend to emphasize more the efficiency of Gujarat, especially relating to bureaucrats. Note that dealing with bureaucrats has always been a somewhat painful experience for the average Indian middle class folks, so ‘efficient bureaucrats’ in some sense represents a popular victory over the thus far unresponsive bureaucracy. And it is this victory that Modi claims (with some justification).

    I do agree with Dr. Gupta though that development tends to be a bigger issue today than communalism. Also, I am not sure how popular Modi really is beyond the upper caste Hindu middle classes.

  • Mohinder
    Posted at 01:33h, 19 October Reply

    A year ago I went to Gujarat and wanted to travel to some village to see how valid was the Government’s claim about 24 hours electricity supply to the villages. I spoke to the villagers, shopkeepers, farmers, and the various taxi drivers who drove me from Ahmedabad and in Anand. At one milk collection center I asked them how did they keep the milk chilled before they send it to the processing center. They had a diesel generator for emergency supply, which they said they used for average 6 to 8 hours a day but for the last four years they had never had to use it since they received 24 hours supply. That was repeated village after village. Trying living in a village in India and you would know what difference connectivity- road, electricity, telecom- can make to life and economic activity. Is there discrimination on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity, in provision of these basics? No.

    In recent elections in Bihar, a woman voter standing in the queue was asked by the TV reporter who was she planning to vote for? This middle aged woman said “for development”. The reporter said, half joking and half condescendingly typical of an urbanite, that there was no candidate by that name. The old lady’s reponse was ‘if you want to ask a question you should also have the intelligence to understand the response”. I could not believe I was watching live coverage!!!!

    Development is becoming good politics; I hope corruption also becomes bad politics soon.

  • sree
    Posted at 06:03h, 19 October Reply

    Among Indian states, it is not just Gujarat, but other states like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are also undergoing development at a high rate. Yet Narendra Modi is the poster boy for development in India.

    One reason might be the personality cult built up around him with or without the connivance of BJP central leadership and RSS.
    Another might be the sops doled out to the industries at a cost to the state, which makes him a darling of the industrialists and consequently the media’s.

    Unfortunately I don’t think that the congress can do much about to counter this using ‘development politics’. The democratic nature of Congress will make it difficult for them to project some Chief Minister of a Congress led government as their own poster boy. They will have to wait till Rahul Gandhi takes over the reins at the center and gets settled there. Also they will be less than willing to align themselves completely with the Indian oligarchs, unlike the BJP, due to their rural voter base.

  • sree
    Posted at 06:15h, 19 October Reply

    On another note, electricity, paved roads, drinking water, health, education in villages were all here in Kerala much before Modi came to power in Gujarat. The only thing lacking in Kerala compared to Gujarat is the presence of big industries. But that is impossible here due to the land constraints.

    Yet all these were achieved without any talk of “development politics”.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 13:46h, 19 October

      sree: The comparison with Kerala raises some issues that might be interesting to explore. It might be useful to unbundle the notion of ‘development’ into two connected but distinct elements. The first pertains to services (health, education, etc.) and facilities or infrastructure (electricity, roads, etc.). The second pertains to prosperity. One could say that the first constitutes the pre-requisites for development while the second is the concrete outcome of development.

      It seems to me that what people as citizens and voters care about is prosperity. If services and facilities don’t translate into material prosperity, they are not attractive in and of themselves.

      The question to consider in this framework is whether Gujarat has a greater reality or sense of prosperity than other states. For a politician to succeed in India it is not sufficient to be the darling of industrialists; voters have to subscribe to the narrative. And, because of that, limited prosperity in enclaves is not enough as was shown by the Shining India debacle of the BJP and to some extent the downfall of Chandrababu Naidu, at least as I understand it. It is difficult, though perhaps not impossible, to build up a cult of personality on a weak foundation. On the other hand, if there a general perception of prosperity, it would be easy to market that as the result of superior leadership especially if there is no counter-narrative from the other side.

      Is this what distinguishes Gujarat from other states?

    • sree
      Posted at 12:20h, 20 October

      I don’t think that Modi’s BJP government winning three consecutive elections is entirely due to the development in his state. It has more to do with the polarized state in Gujarat.

      But this is being cast as victories due to Modi’s bringing about development in the state. It might have some effect, but I think it would be less than the other factor. Also the personality cult built around him started as being that of a strong leader and now to that of a leader bringing in development.

      Also unlike the chief ministers in other states, there seems to be no credible opposition to him, either of any leader or group within the party. The BJP central leadership having put so much political capital protecting him during his first controversial stint seems to be unwilling to let him down any way, as it would be seen as the party’s defeat.

      So he has got everything going for him now, BJP winning elections due to the polarized state, no opposition from within as it would not be approved by the central leadership, beneficial deals to businesses ensuring their support and consequently the media’s.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 15:25h, 19 October Reply

    A number of thoughts came to mind on reading Dipankar Gupta’s article and I would like to enter them into this discussion for feedback.

    It seems to me that there are three key groups to consider in this scenario. The first is a subset of intellectuals who have a normative position on what India should be like with the value of citizen equality carrying a high priority. (There are other subsets of intellectuals conferring primacy on different values but I am ignoring them for the moment.)

    The second group is that of politicians for whom all is fair in love and war and who can, like most of us, find a way to reconcile their actions with whatever values they espouse.

    The third group is that of the mass of voters.

    The real interaction is between the politicians and the voters with the intellectuals observing and commenting from the margins.

    My own sense is that while the voters are not communal in their everyday lives they remain very susceptible to being swayed by communal arguments. This plays into the hands of the politicians who are not averse to exacerbating the communal divide if that serves short-term electoral interests.

    The psyche of the South Asian citizen does not seem to me favorably disposed to democracy. Perhaps that is so because democracy has been seen to be painfully slow in delivering real material benefits. It has acquired a pejorative sense of coming in the way of ‘development’. There is rather a penchant for soft authoritarianism and an admiration for leaders who can get things done often by sweeping aside democratic niceties. Hence also the undertow of admiration for China.

    As part of the same psyche, it is not facts and figures that appeal to voters but results and the perception of efficiency even if it is of ruthless efficiency.

    Given this context, a Congress attempt to claim credit for past initiatives is unlikely to cut much ice. Rather, Congress might have to come up with a leader who can be seen as more efficient than Modi. That would be difficult given the advantage of incumbency. Hence, the only option would seem to be to play the communal card in reverse – accusing Modi of exceeding the norms that define Indian politics.

    To me Congress seems out of options in Gujarat.

  • vijaykukadia
    Posted at 16:33h, 27 April Reply

    I live in rajkot and before modi we get 15 to 16 hours electricity even rajkot is big city

    dont write comment just come in gujarat and see here

  • Suman
    Posted at 21:49h, 09 March Reply

    well written but a stupid analysis. The writer seems to assume a lot of things but my friend i think for u ass-u-me is nothing more than making an ass out of u and me. I have lived in Gujarat for four years in the country side and your analysis is far from the real truth. With so many happy villagers around and girls fearlessly roaming around even at 1 am at nite in the most lonely road possible, this piece of writing does not has the ingredients that would digest even with a strong digestive system of a carnivore.

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